ISRAELI naval commandos stormed a flotilla of ships carrying aid and hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists to the blockaded Gaza Strip yesterday, killing as many as 19 people in a botched raid that provoked international outrage and a diplomatic crisis.
Dozens of activists and six Israeli soldiers were wounded in the bloody predawn confrontation in international waters. The violent takeover dealt another blow to Israel’s international image, already tarnished by war crimes accusations in Gaza and its three-year-old blockade of the impoverished Palestinian territory.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled a much-anticipated meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington today, in a sign of just how gravely Israel viewed the uproar.
The activists were headed to Gaza to draw attention to the blockade, which Israel and Egypt imposed after the militant Hamas group seized the territory of 1.5 million Palestinians in 2007.
There were conflicting accounts of what happened early yesterday, with activists claiming the Israelis opened fire without provocation and Israel insisting its forces fired in self defence.
Mr Netanyahu expressed “regret” for the loss of life but said the soldiers had no choice. “Our soldiers had to defend themselves or they would have been killed.”
Israel said it opened fire after its commandos were attacked by knives, clubs and live fire from two pistols wrested from soldiers.
Late yesterday, it released a video that it said supported its version of events, with activists swarming around commandos after they descended from a helicopter by rope at about 4am onto the lead boat, the Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, carrying 600 people. Activists scuffled with the commandos and are seen throwing an object the military identified as a firebomb.
A commando who spoke to reporters said he and his comrades were taken off guard by a group of Arabic-speaking men when they landed. Some soldiers were stripped of their helmets and equipment. At one point one of the activists seized one of the soldiers’ weapons and opened fire, he said.
Communications to the ships were cut after the raid began, and activists were kept from reporters after their boats were towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod.
Helicopters evacuated the wounded to Israeli hospitals, officials said. Five ships had reached port by early evening and some 136 activists had been removed without serious incident, the military said.
Sixteen activists were jailed for refusing to identify themselves, a police spokesman said. Israel had said activists would be given the choice to be deported or imprisoned.
Israeli officials said the death toll was nine with 30 wounded, after earlier saying 10 people were killed.
In a sign soldiers didn’t anticipate such fierce resistance, two commandos said that the primary weapons were guns that fired paintballs. They said they resorted to lethal handgun fire after they were assaulted.
Turkey’s NTV network showed activists beating one commando with sticks as he landed on one of the boats.
Activists, however, painted a completely different picture, saying the commandos stormed the ships after ordering them to stop in international waters, 130km from Gaza’s coast.
A reporter with the pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, who was sailing on the ship leading the flotilla, said the Israelis fired at the vessel before boarding it, wounding the captain.
“These savages are killing people here, please help,” a Turkish reporter said.
At Barzilai hospital in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, a few activists trickled in under military escort. “They hit me,” said a Greek man, whose right arm was in a sling, calling the Israelis “pirates”.
At a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel’s military chief of staff and navy commander said the violence centred on the lead boat, that was carrying all but 100 of the activists. Troops took over the five other boats without incident, military chief Gabi Ashkenazi said.
Before the ships set sail from waters off Cyprus on Sunday, Israel had urged the flotilla not to try to breach the blockade and offered to transfer some of the cargo to Gaza from an Israeli port, following an inspection.
Organisers included the IHH, an Islamic humanitarian group that is based in Istanbul but operates in several other countries.
Israel outlawed the group in 2008 because of its ties to Hamas.
The flotilla of three cargo and three passenger ships carrying 10,000 tons of aid and 700 activists was carrying items Israel bars from Gaza, like cement and other building materials.
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